It’s hard to know what to say about Sam Levinson’s already controversial HBO series except that it says quite a lot about the increasingly attention-grabbing antics of the Cannes Film Festival that space was made at the prestigious Grand Théâtre Lumière for the first two episodes of a cable TV show. In a case of life imitating art, the crazy scenes surrounding the premiere would not have been out of place on the screen in a story that, at least as far as anyone could tell, is a satire on the sensation-saturated world of contemporary pop culture, where good is bad and bad is the bare minimum.
Presented without explanation or context, The Idol unspooled in two roughly 50-minute chunks, presenting a more sedate setup than its trailer suggests. The opening scene is a photoshoot for the notorious Jocelyn (Lily-Rose Depp), a famous singer recovering from a breakdown after the death of her mother. Wearing a skimpy red kimono, Jocelyn is in a state of what Depp’s mother Vanessa Paradis might describe as déshabillé, and for the next 100 minutes or so she will never be habillé again. Troublingly, she still is wearing the bracelet from her recent hospitalization, but her management shrugs it off. “Mental illness is sexy,” says the abrasive Nikki (Jane Adams, cast brilliantly against type).
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Jocelyn is planning her comeback, but ticket sales for the upcoming tour are not shifting like they used to. To kickstart publicity, Jocelyn’s team have invited a Vanity Fair writer to come and watch the preparations, which begin with rehearsals for her new video, “World Class Sinner,” an actually pretty convincing slice of mediocre R&B. Comparisons are made with Britney Spears, but Jocelyn is more of a rebellious Courtney Love type, and her manager, Chaim (Hank Azaria), encourages her worst excesses, locking the shoot’s intimacy coordinator in a bathroom to annul the record company’s “nudity rider.” “Who would police those tits?” says Nikki, who gets quite a lot of zingers like this.
Even Chaim is shocked, however, when a picture appears on Twitter that sets the internet alight. It appears to be a selfie of Jocelyn with semen on her face, and its appearance prompts both consternation and an amusing discussion of the word “bukkake” (don’t google it, especially at work, if you don’t already know). It’s a bad time for a visit from for Jocelyn’s rep at LiveNation (Eli Roth), and he understandably is furious to hear that she has been branded “the human cumsock” on social media. (“How are 14-year-old girls going to buy tickets for this when she’s frosted like a Pop Tart?”)
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Jocelyn, however, is not bothered by all this rather extreme scenario, which gives rise to a brief and not wholly convincing debate about revenge porn and slut-shaming. Instead, she is worried that the new song is rubbish, something she feels unable to discuss with her team (“When you’re famous, people lie to you”). She gets the chance soon enough after meeting charismatic impresario Tedros Tedros (Abel “The Weeknd” Tesfaye), who seduces her on the dancefloor of his popular nightclub and gains her trust. He thinks the song is OK — it’s just her delivery that’s wack. “When you sing, ‘I’m a freak,’” he explains, giving Donna Summer as an example, “you’ve gotta sing it like you know how to f*ck.”
By the second episode, Jocelyn has been giving this a lot of thought, to the horror of Team Jocelyn, who reacts with barely concealed contempt to her defiantly uncommercial attempt to remix what Nikki angrily calls “a big-titted hit.” It doesn’t help that the video for “World Class Sinner” is not going well either; Jocelyn is a neurotic wreck, struggling with the dance routine and insisting on multiple takes that leave her bloodied and exhausted. Jocelyn’s comeback is getting shakier by the minute, and the sudden appearance of Tedros — a man with no past, just a shady present and a lot of debts — is of great concern to the team. Tedros hasn’t had much screentime until now, but in the second episode shown, he suddenly becomes a lot more assertive, bringing a bunch of his friends to Jocelyn’s house and talking about collaborating with her. “It will be easier if I move in,” he says, as those friends run amok in Jocelyn’s house, one of those anodyne old-timer Bel-Air mansions that young stars so often occupy but never really live in.
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So where is all this going? It’s impossible to say except to speculate wildly, given director Sam Levinson’s track record as the creator of HBO’s Euphoria, that something, probably quite nasty, is afoot. Visually, with its neon-noir color scheme and preponderance of red fabric, The Idol is one part giallo, one part erotic thriller and thus two parts Brian De Palma. We can also put Paul Verhoeven in the mix, though Levinson cheekily references Basic Instinct rather than the anticipated Showgirls, showing Jocelyn and her PA/BFF watching it on late-night TV.
There is, however, no obvious sign of tension, at least not yet. Could there be a clue in Nikki’s assertion that Jocelyn’s look is “a little Sharon Tate” and the fact that Tedros has assembled a loose family of misfits as he tries to break into the music industry? And is Jocelyn being groomed when she joins in with a mournful song sung by Tedros’s prodigy Chloe — a frequently nude Suzanna Son — that ends with the refrain: “That’s my family/ We don’t like each other very much/I’m OK with that/But it breaks my mother’s heart.”
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Until we know more, it’s hard to make value judgments about morality and ethics, or, more substantively, the arguments about the male gaze and female body rights that are coming in the water like a stealth torpedo. However it turns out, Depp is quite rivetingly game with, to put it mildly, a highly sexualized performance that also is grounded and often vulnerable, discomfitingly addressing the fine lines between porn and art, power and exploitation that have faced young women in the music industry for years.
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Title: The Idol
Festival: Cannes (Out of Competition)
Director: Sam Levinson
Screenwriters: Sam Levinson, Abel Tesfaye,
Cast: Lily-Rose Depp, Abel Tesfaye, Jane Adams, Suzanna Son, Hank Azaria, Eli Roth
Running Time: 1 hr, 46 mins (two of six episodes screened)